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Who will be the next four IWGP World Heavyweight champions?

via Numbers

I don’t hate most of the creative decisions that New Japan Pro-Wrestling makes. Yes, EVIL winning the Double Gold last year stunk. Yes, we see way too much interference and referee bumping in big matches. But to their credit, there’s no Firefly Fun House, nor any bad cinematic matches. The quality of New Japan’s matches, for the most part, feels like a step above the rest, and their visual production is world class. What’s more, their booking is probably the best out of any company, despite whatever WON award voters want you to think. 

While their booking doesn’t often miss, especially when it comes to long-term planning, what New Japan announced as their top prize really threw me through a loop: On January 5, 2020, when Tetsuya Naito became the first ever simultaneous IWGP Heavyweight & Intercontinental Champion, it was not a question of if the two belts would be unified but when

Now, I was fine with the idea of the belts being unified. Completely fine. I actually would prefer a unification, as I think the less belts in a promotion the better (I’m talking to you, WWE). In New Japan, you had a clear top title, the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. Below that, you have three other singles belts in the IWGP Intercontinental, IWGP United States Heavyweight and NEVER Openweight Championships. At times, it was unclear where each strap stood amongst the other; which one meant more? Pairing the (a) & (b) together always made sense, especially to make them form one championship and allow the other two upper-mid singles championships some room to breathe. Now, the IWGP United States Heavyweight Championship will continue to live on NJPW Strong, and the NEVER Openweight title that allows for good for brawls and/or interesting open-division weight class matches. 

The most polarizing aspect of the title’s creation is it will bring both title’s lineages under one banner as the IWGP World Heavyweight title. In creating a new title and making Ibushi the first in a new lineage of champions, my concern is that the new championship won’t hold the same sauce that the regular IWGP Heavyweight title has had since ‘87, especially since New Japan’s resurgence early last decade. It might share a similar name, but this new championship is not exactly the same one that Antonio Inoki held, that Tatsumi Fujinami held, Riki Choshu, Keiji Muto, Shinya Hashimoto, Shinsuke Nakamura, Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kazuchika Okada held. Are they still going to show the montage clip of the former champions before the big matches? Or will it just be a couple of seconds of Ibushi?

Kota Ibushi, IWGP double champion

I believe that in order for this new championship to maintain a level of prestige, Ibushi’s reign must be at least a year long, so, roughly early September 2022. Sure, it’s a long time, but you can’t possibly look me in the eye and say “No, C.J., I don’t want Kota Ibushi in the main events for the next year.” You simply can’t. Let him go through this year’s G1 Climax tournament. Let him have the title matches in the later half of 2021, or have another successful defense at the Tokyo Dome in January. If they do another big show in a large venue in mid-late ‘22, switch it if the reign had run its course. If it’s still fresh & interesting? Keep it going. 

Now that we are starting over in a way, it made me wonder who the first few champions will be. We know that our first champion is Ibushi, immortalize—until they start over again. But who will be the next four IWGP World Heavyweight Champions? These are my top choices to hold the new belt, to be what Antonio Inoki, Tatsumi Fujinami, Big Van Vader, Salman Hashimikov or Riki Choshu were when they held the IWGP Heavyweight Championship.


Kazuchika Okada

RESUMÉ: 

  • As IWGP Heavyweight Champion: Five reigns with 30 combined defenses; holds the record for most defenses in a single reign at twelve; holds the record for longest single reign at 720 days, or 1,790 days as champion
  • 2–0 in the G1 Climax inals
  • Has wrestled in seven of the last eleven main events on Wrestle Kingdom
  • Will probably be one of the all-time greatest wrestlers when all is said and done
  • Has one of the best and most over finishing moves in wrestling
  • “Rainmaker” is an all-time combat athlete nickname. 

To put it plainly, Kazuchika Okada owned the 2010s. There were many, many times where it felt like Okada was the greatest wrestler walking the planet. I mean, you could probably still say he is now. As of this writing, maybe not so much, with Kaz bowing out of the New Japan Cup in the first round while wrestling with two slipped discs in his back, but he’s just not on the hot plate right now, rather the back-burner. 

With such an unbelievable calendar decade that Okada had, it feels inevitable that this new belt will be around the Rainmaker’s waist. I don’t think he’s going to end Ibushi’s current reign, but Okada is only 33 years old. Hiroshi Tanahashi won it at 42, and I think Okada at 42 could be better than Tanahashi at the same age. Okada’s too good, and he’s still got plenty of years and bumps left. 

Jay White

RESUMÉ: 

  • Former IWGP Heavyweight Champion and fourth youngest to hold the title
  • “Single-handedly sold out Madison Square Garden.” That isn’t true, but he was in the main event of G1 Supercard at Madison Square Garden in April 2019 on a memorable card, but for all the wrong reasons
  • 0–1 in the G1 finals, but he’s been to the dance
  • Main-evented the second night of Wrestle Kingdom 15 and had the best match on either card.
  • The best heel in professional wrestling, not just New Japan—all of professional wrestling.

Watch any big Jay White singles match in the last 18 months. Put your phone down and really focus on everything he does. He’s a super-duper star. If you look at Jay White’s performance in his Wrestle Kingdom 12 match against Hiroshi Tanahashi, you saw potential, you saw a young, hungry heel. You saw something special. Fast forward three years to Wrestle Kingdom 15, night two. Jay White felt like the best wrestler in the promotion, or the whole world, even. 

When Jay White won the IWGP Heavyweight Championship in February 2019, even a massive “Switchblade” fan like myself can admit that it felt premature, and it was. It was supposed to be Kenny Omega, still white-hot coming off of his 2018 run, defending the IWGP Heavyweight Championship against Kazuchika Okada in the G1 Supercard main event at Madison Square Garden, possibly one of the biggest sliding door situations in the recent history of pro-wrestling. 

Of course, AEW got in the way: Omega decided to leave New Japan, dropping the title on his way out to Hiroshi Tanahashi on January 4. Tanahashi would quickly turn around and drop the title to White at New Beginning in Osaka, who at the time was still a young pup growing into very big paws. While his win was premature, fans had clearly accepted Jay White as NJPW’s replacement for Kenny Omega.

If Jay White won the IWGP World Heavyweight title today, it wouldn’t feel premature. it wouldn’t come across as the promotion’s attempt to replace the top foreigner. It would actually feel like a top guy in the promotion winning its top belt. White’s a top guy, and arguments could be made that he’s the guy in this business.

Will Ospreay

RESUMÉ:

  • New Japan Cup 2021 winner
  • Three reigns as IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion
  • 2–1 in the Best of Super Junior finals
  • Competed in the New Japan Cup, Best of Super Juniors and G1 Climax in a calendar year
  • I’m being super-objective here

Despite how he may behave outside of the ring, it’s clear how highly New Japan thinks of Will Ospreay right now, and that’s the sole reason I’ve placed him in this group. His resumé speaks for itself. He’s long been on the ascent in New Japan. As of this writing, Ospreay is the first scheduled challenger for Kota Ibushi’s IWGP World Heavyweight championship, which will take place Sakura Genesis on April 4. And I don’t see the belt changing hands often if Ibushi wins this; rapid title changes would be counterproductive to creating its perception of prestige. Despite the negativity surrounding him, it feels inevitable that NJPW will put their top prize around Ospreay’s waist.

SANADA

RESUMÉ:

  • 0–1 in New Japan Cup Finals (has also been to the dance)
  • 0–1 in G1 Climax Finals (ditto)
  • Supremely talented
  • Just let me have this

“Sanada? Really?” Yes, really.

SANADA is on the brink of being a top dog in New Japan Pro-Wrestling, and in an unpredictable industry like this, I’m not ruling out the Cold Skull climbing to the top of the mountain.

Full transparency, I’m a huge SANADA fan. I think his improvement even in the last couple of years has been astronomical. I’ll admit he’s not the most charismatic guy on the roster,  definitely somewhere between BUSHI and Shingo on the charisma scale. That said, he’s come a long way in terms of coming across like a star since being a blank-faced mohawk guy. 

The 2019 New Japan Cup felt like the one of the first coming-out parties for SANADA. We knew he was good, but he leveled up here. Since then, SANADA’s stock has been in the green ever since, and growing steadily. He’s 33 now, but looks at least four years younger—it must be something in the NJPW locker rooms. I think he’ll surely ascend to regular main event status down the road.

And at the very least, if EVIL won the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, how could SANADA not win the title from his ex-partner eventually?

Honorable mentions

  • Tetsuya Naito

Despite holding the double titles so recently, I just can’t see him holding the new one anytime soon. That’s not to say I’d like to be proven wrong, though.

  • Zack Sabre Jr. 

It feels like Sabre has been on the cusp at times, winning a New Japan Cup once and going deep in G1s in the past. I just don’t think he’s as high on the New Japan hierarchy as the four I’ve mentioned.

  • Shingo Takagi

I would loving nothing more than for Shingo Takagi to win the IWGP World Heavyweight title, but I think as time progresses, it’s clear that Shingo is basically becoming Tomohiro Ishii. Reliable for an awesome match, occasionally has big singles matches, and will likely challenge for the title multiple times, but will always be a bridesmaid, never the bride.

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